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Analysis: Sex trafficking series shows Texas vexed by long-term challenges

State officials have done a lot of work to stop sex trafficking in Texas, but the results revealed by the Tribune's Sold Out series are demoralizing. The state's own safety net is part of the pipeline for victims of trafficking.

People who care for sex-trafficking victims have a common refrain: It's not if they'll run away, but when.

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Elected officials can be effective in the short term — when there’s a crisis, when a one-time legal tweak is needed, when there’s an immediate answer to a political necessity.

But they often fail at the long-term stuff — the persistent problems that require years of steady pressure and care but that only generate headlines and public attention once in a while.

Protecting the state’s children is one of those. Headlines and public attention have created a priority: It’s a crisis now, and lawmakers are focused on it. That shouldn’t be necessary. The state’s protective services for children and adults has reached crisis stage and has been “fixed” before, most recently with legislation in 2005.

Over time, official attention drifted to other issues, crises, politics and matters that somehow seemed more urgent than kids in danger. Their diligence waned. And child protection services slowly lapsed back into crisis.

The thriving business of sex trafficking in Texas illustrates a different kind of official inattention — the kind that happens when policymakers focus on crime and criminals instead of victims.

Their policies leave a terrible question unanswered: Who got trafficked and who’s taking charge of that mess?

It’s not that they let their attention wander, but that their work was directed more at the people doing the trafficking than at the people being trafficked.

They missed the link between the state’s broken child welfare system and the sex trafficking business — or, if they didn’t miss it, created policies that ignored the link. That connection was made clear in the “Sold Out” series reported by the Tribune’s Neena Satija, Morgan Smith and Edgar Walters, who found that there could be tens of thousands of child sex-trafficking victims in Texas today — and that the vast majority of them have had some contact with the child welfare system. 

They’re kids who, at some point or another, were supposed to have been rescued or moved into safety by the state. That’s the reason for state agencies that protect children; the question of whether to help those kids at all was answered when those programs were founded and funded.

State officials, acting on behalf of citizens, built a safety net. They just didn’t build a very good one.

Even when their designs were good and their hearts were in the right place — that’s usually the case, by the way — they often didn’t follow through.

The Texas Legislature has passed a lot of legislation on sex trafficking. It also left remarkable gaping holes in its safety net, setting up programs for victims and leaving them unfunded, for instance.

What was supposed to be a $10 million-per-year victim assistance grant program started eight years ago has never been funded. No credit there — that’s the same thing as not having a grant program at all.

The thriving business of sex trafficking in Texas illustrates a different kind of official inattention — the kind that happens when policymakers focus on crime and criminals instead of victims.

The state’s budget-writers never put money into judicial diversion programs for juveniles caught selling sex. The difference between that and no diversion programs at all is negligible.

There’s one facility in the state — near Houston — for sex trafficking victims. It’s got 20 beds.

It’s not that all of the children being sold for sex in Texas would be eligible, but that facility — important as those beds are for the 20 girls in there at any given time — is too small to even count as a scratch on the problem.

It’s an anecdotal piece of the evidence that demonstrates the concerns and efforts of the elected officials in Texas. They know there is a problem. They have passed some laws. They spent some taxpayer money.

And they own the terribly inadequate results.

If that doesn’t seem fair, go back and look through all the old headlines, press releases and announcements about the state’s gains in efforts to protect children in danger, foster kids and those trapped in sex trafficking — sometimes the same people in all three of those miserable situations.

The gains are real. Officials have done a lot. But this system remains badly busted and needs years of work — and they’re the people we’ve elected to work on it.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • Lawmakers want to stop deducting dues for union and non-union employee associations from state paychecks — but only for the employees they disagree with. 
  • With an official forecast that less money will be available, the next state budget is tight. The finance folks are looking for money to make it balance, but don't fret: They've got plenty of tax-avoiding, budget-balancing tricks in their bags.
  • It’s a confusing time in school finance — a maelstrom of local and state governments trying to master a byzantine system that is faltering in every way but the most important one: The courts say it's broken, but constitutionally sound.

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